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Gaming a Copyleft Market · Wednesday May 28, 2008 by Crosbie Fitch

Someone recently asked me a couple of questions relating to how collective commissions to artists by companies or audiences could work without copyright, e.g. of GPL software via digital art auctions:

1) “So why should a company spend money on a commission when instead they could just wait and get it for free?”

For the same reason the people most interested in specific GPL software (enhancements, bug fixes, etc.) don’t wait for it to be eventually released when more people are more interested. Believe it or not, but big businesses do commission the development of GPL software (rather than wait for someone else to do it and get it for free).

In a digital art auction, if you need something sooner rather than later you can say how much it’s worth to you sooner, even if it’s just a penny. If you don’t need it sooner and it isn’t even worth a penny to you, then yes, wait and get it for free.

Bear in mind though, an artist isn’t going to part with their hard labour if the compensation isn’t equitable. So, as in any market, if there’s no demand for your work (sooner rather than later), you won’t necessarily be able to sell it at the price you’d like (so keep it under wraps until the market’s right).

2) “Why should a company spend money on a commission for something that their competition will then get for free?”

Many people purchase games consoles in the knowledge that they may be purchased by neighbours at half-price a few months later.

It would be strange to adjust one’s valuation in a bargain today in consideration of the price a competitor may obtain in a later bargain. It’s a matter of balancing the value of obtaining something at a higher price sooner rather than a lower price later. Sometimes it’s more competitive to save money, sometimes to save time.

In line with what I said before, if today something is worth $10 to Fred and a penny to Bob, what does it matter if next month it is sold by Fred for a penny to Bob – or even given to him as a gesture of goodwill? As long as the artist and their commissioners are happy with their exchange, why do they care what exchanges anyone else makes later on?

Perhaps it is worth $10 to Bob today, but he doesn’t have the money to spare? Such are the vagaries of a market.

However, if Bob does have $10 to spare, does think it’s worth $10, and wants it sooner rather than later, why would he only offer a penny?

What Bob offers is precisely how much additional incentive he wishes to offer the artist to complete and deliver the work thus commissioned. If Bob feels the artist is sufficiently incentivised for an imminent acceptance of the offer, he may well opt to wait and obtain a copy of the work at a cheaper price in the secondary market (soon reducing to zero in proportion to diffusion). But, Bob has thus exchanged sooner/higher for later/lower (valuing the interval as $9.99) no matter how little influence or affect this has.

Perhaps you wonder if the audience could collude to bring the price down by deliberately undervaluing it?

Firstly, the artist won’t sell if they don’t feel the compensation is equitable, and whilst this state of affairs continues the work’s delivery and sale are delayed. Secondly, it’s unlikely that the necessary and mendacious solidarity can be achieved let alone sustained across what is likely to be a large, enthusiastic, loyal audience.

An audience offering a commission to an artist is invariably interested in paying what they and the artist consider is an equitable amount of money to persuade the artist to produce good work in exchange, sooner rather than later.




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